One of the greatest misconceived statements I often see from professed atheists is this one:
A God that commands you “Either believe in me or go to hell” is not giving you free will: he’s blackmailing you.
(Actual quote from someone I know, but seen in different forms many times)
This shows the utter and wilful ignorance about the matter. It shows how they never studied (or, worse, wilfully misinterpreted or ignored) the teachings of the Bible, rendering their rejection based on anything other than reason, since you can’t rationally reject something you know nothing about.
What the atheist usually means by believing in God is “believing that God exists”. Nowhere in the Bible is that dilemma ever posed. The problem is not whether or not God exists (because in that case all theists could obtain eternal life); in fact, the Bible teaches that everyone knows that God exists and whoever denies this obvious thing is wilfully suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-21)
Here’s what the reality is: no one will ever be condemned by God for not having believed in His existence. They will because they sinned, they broke God’s moral law, which emanates from His own nature, making sin an offence directed to God Himself. And a just judge must condemn outlaws. It would be unloving to do otherwise; as it is written:
[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6)
If you’re a criminal, you go to jail, so to speak. So, it’s got nothing to do with the existence of your judge. You know the judge exist and he’s going to send you to jail if you do wrong.
God is the creator and the very source of justice; in fact, without God it’s impossible to objectively and meaningfully account for right and wrong altogether. Since God is the source of justice, it’s only fair He’s judge over all and demands perfect righteousness from rational beings with free will created in His own image.
Now, because of Adam’s first choice to sin with Eve, mankind has been plunged in a form of slavery: slavery to sin (John 8:34). That means that one way or another, everyone sins (Romans 3:23). However, their ability to recognise right from wrong is still there (Genesis 4:6-7), so everybody still has the choice to acknowledge they are doing wrong, thus trusting God as the source of justice and the supreme judge, or not.
Now, this same Judge right from the first choice of mankind to rebel (Genesis 3) has provided a way to escape judgement yet still fulfil justice: He has been willing to take upon Himself this judgement in the person of the Son of God, Jesus, the Christ, and then said to all: if you believe in the Gospel (i.e. Jesus paid for your sins), you’ll be free, and you will have eternal life. Unmerited: it’s my gift.
Throughout history everyone who had faith in God’s promise (to be fulfilled or already fulfilled), was saved.
All that these people were doing was to acknowledge that God’s will is perfect and deviating from it is a crime.
Now, is it unreasonable to ask outlaws to admit they are such? No. Is it unreasonable to condemn them? No. Is it unreasonable to provide a scapegoat for them? Yes. Yet God did so, out of love. And for the people who accept Jesus, He renews them, and gives them a new heart who loves the Law of God, and no longer is hostile to it.
The issue unbelievers have with this is not truly the lack of choice. It’s that they like being outlaws and make up their own law, in utter defiance of God’s Law. They want to do as they please without anyone telling them what’s right or wrong. They want to define right and wrong, reaching the absurdity of a meaningless morality.
So here they show they have the free will: they could be declared innocent in God’s court, washed by the blood of Jesus, have eternal life and a changed heart towards the One who gave them life to begin with; but to do so they will have to admit they are wrong. They don’t like that, so they choose darkness. As it is written:
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)
It’s not a matter of lack of free will. It’s a matter of pride. They are too proud to admit they are fundamentally evil.
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)